County officials have been talking about building an upgraded emergency operations center (EOC) for more than a year, but some believe there’s a viable option sitting in West Mobile already.
An EOC is a centralized location used for the coordination of response and recovery processes during an emergency, but portions of the current facility used by the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) on McGregor Avenue are more than 60 years old.
Plans drawn up a few years ago have a facility slated for construction on Ziegler Boulevard near the Mobile County Communications District — land given to the EMA by the city of Mobile.
Located on the same property is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Disaster Response Center (DRC), which was constructed on land the EMA owns as well. Over the past few months, MCCD board members discussed the possibility of using the NOAA facility instead of building a new structure for the EMA.
The 15,500-square-foot, $11-million DRC — championed by Sen. Richard Shelby — was built in 2012. Similar to an EOC, but much larger in scale, the federally funded facility is set up to be a central location for agencies across the entire Gulf coast in the event of a disaster.
During a November meeting, County Engineer Joe Ruffer — who serves on both the MCCD board and the county’s EMA Authority Board — discussed the agreements made between the two agencies when the DRC was constructed.
“EMA owns that land and leased it to NOAA to construct the building with the stipulation that at any such time as it ceases using the facility, EMA gets dibs on the building,” Ruffer said. “It’s set up for (that), but only if NOAA doesn’t get funding to stay in the building.”
Mobile County EMA Director Ronnie Adair compared to the situation to how National Guard armories revert back to the city or county they’re located in if they’re unfunded federally.
Though he’s heard no rumors of a funding change, Adair said “you never know what’s going to happen” from year to year.
Gary Tanner, director of MCCD, said he approached Sen. Jeff Sessions about defunding the DRC to save the county money three years ago, but no change has been made. Asked what would happen if both a new EOC was constructed and the NOAA facility was stripped of its funding, Tanner said “that would be a disaster.”
Charlie Henry, director of the DRC, said his funding is entirely at the discretion of Congress.
“I have no way to look ahead in the future, but right now we’re funded from multiple sources,” he said. “It takes roughly $1 million for us to operate and maintain services, but there are some additional monies we put into programs to try to enhance projects throughout the entire Gulf.”
Henry said with only 15 offices, the facility currently has more personnel than it has space for, and is looking to house two additional staff members from the Gulf Coast Recovery Council in mid-December. But he also said the original plans behind the DRC were created with the EMA’s proposed facility in mind.
“The idea was they were going to design their facility parallel to ours, connect them by a covered walkway and they would be mutually supportive,” Henry said. “They weren’t going to duplicate some of the rooms we have and we could both use either facility.”
According to Henry, more than 700 first responders have used the DRC for training drills, including personnel from the county, state, the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal agencies.
“We’re actually providing a service by using it to support the area,” he said. “In fact, the region has the added value that, basically, NOAA and the federal government are paying for them to use the facility.”
In the meantime, Adair said a larger facility for EMA is a priority because the current EOC is dated.
“They started construction on pieces of the current facility in 1952, and it was upgraded in the ‘60s,” he said. “There’s still copper wiring.”
Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson said the EMA has received about $2 million in federal grants for the EOC and, according to Adair, around $800,000 of that has already been used to design a structural plan for the new facility.
“We’ve been looking at different funding mechanisms, but have sort of put it on the front burner because we know time is an issue,” Hudson said. “The federal government wants to see what sort of progress you’ve made, and if by a certain deadline you haven’t made progress, they want the money back.”
Hudson said the county has already been granted two extensions on that deadline, but said there’s no guarantee of additional extensions.
According to the structural plan, the EOC could cost in the neighborhood of $14 million and would be around 36,000 square feet when completed. Funding for the facility is planned from a hodgepodge of sources including the MCCD, the county and federal grants.
At a County Commission meeting last month, Ruffer said the county’s portion of the project would only require a $7 million commitment from its capital improvements plan (CIP) despite the city of Mobile backing out of its commitment to help fund the project.
“The city, as you know, told us they would not be able to come up with their $7 million,” Ruffer told commissioners. “We also have about $2.6 million of road work we moved from our 2012 CIP into the most recent Pay As You Go program.”
Ruffer said $9.6 million would be all that’s needed from the county, but the MCCD will likely be indirectly contributing $1.3 million to the facility as well.
According to Tanner, MCCD has set those funds to purchase the old EOC — an amount that’s been budgeted for more than four years.
Trey Oliver, a MCCD board member and representative of the Mobile County Merit System Employees Association, addressed commissioners at the last meeting and expressed concerns about rumors of borrowing money to fund the EOC.
Though Hudson said the EOC’s funding wasn’t entirely worked out, she responded to Oliver by saying, “even with this bond issue we’re contemplating at the beginning of the year, our debt service has been reduced by $2 million (in our most recent budget). If we stop borrowing money, we would very shortly end up in the same situation the city has been in for years with all the money going to operations,” Hudson said. “Our constituents don’t expect us to put all the money in operations. It’s a balancing act.”
Oliver said he was concerned more debt would limit the county’s operational spending and hinder its ability to increase employee wages, deal with infrastructure needs and address overcrowding at the Mobile Metro Jail, where he serves as warden.
The commissioners agreed the jail’s population was concerning, but District 2 Commissioner Merceria Ludgood called the EOC “a critical need.”
“The existing EOC is trying to function, but isn’t able to, and that’s just not sustainable,” Ludgood said. “With us being the vulnerable type of community that we are, we’ve just got to do better.”
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